Best and worst draft marriages
Fairley, Ingram set up to thrive right away; Jones, Ponder face unfair expectations
It's time once again to determine the best and worst marriages coming out of the NFL draft. And when we talk about marriages, it's always important to explain the context.
This isn't a column focused on the overall ability level of certain players. It's one that targets the situations these prospects fell into over the weekend. That placement is a major factor in how well these rookies will perform once they actually start playing in the league.
So here are the five best marriages coming out of this year's draft, along with five more that don't look so promising:
1. Nick Fairley, DT, Detroit: The Lions continue to put the mistakes of the Matt Millen era far behind them. By teaming Fairley with NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh, Detroit now has an extremely bright future on the interior of its defense.
Fairley was the best pass-rusher at his position in this draft and he plays with the type of nasty streak that Lions head coach Jim Schwartz loves. Any questions about his work ethic and maturity -- apparently issues that led to Fairley's dropping to Detroit with the 13th overall selection -- will also be offset by his having a chance to learn from Suh. Bottom line: Detroit could have another defensive rookie of the year if everything goes right.
2. Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans: Ingram may have been sweating in the NFL's green room on Thursday night, but he should be grateful for his eventual landing place. What running back wouldn't want to play in an offense with a passing game that puts so much pressure on opposing defenses?
Ingram should find plenty of running room in his rookie season. He also should have ample opportunities with the futures of Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas remaining very much in question in New Orleans.
3. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Tampa Bay: Bowers makes this list because no rookie will have a bigger chip on his shoulder and less pressure on him this coming season. It's widely believed that he had the skills and productivity to be one of the top three picks in this year's draft. It's also apparent that concerns about the sturdiness of his surgically repaired right knee frightened several teams.
But here's the upside: Bowers now gets to play on a defensive line that features two other young talents (defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay's first-round pick this year) and he's working for a team that loves nabbing players with supposed red flags coming out of college (like wide receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount). In other words, this pick has steal written all over it if Bowers remains healthy.
4. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston: Though the Texans clearly needed to bolster their secondary in this draft, they also realized they could help their feeble pass defense with more improvement up front. This is where Watt comes in. He played in a 4-3 defense in college, but he's versatile enough to be a destructive 3-4 end in the scheme of new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
He'll also be playing on a front seven that includes Pro Bowlers like Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing. Watt would've been a strong addition to any team that grabbed him. In Houston, he should quickly develop into a fan favorite.
5. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona: Peterson had the chance to make an immediate impact wherever he went. It just so happened that he landed in Arizona. You're talking about a 6-foot-1, 219-pound cornerback who consistently runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds.
Oh yeah, did we mention that he's a dangerous return man and that he'll be playing opposite a Pro Bowl cornerback in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie? You've heard this before: Peterson is going to be a big-time star.
1. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta: For all the respect that Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff deserves for his talent evaluation, this move defies logic. The Falcons gave up five draft picks to take a player who, while supremely talented, is going to be the second-best receiver on the roster. Talk about pressure.
Even if Jones lives up to the expectations -- and yes, he'll benefit from being in an offense that already features quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White -- he'll never be good enough to make up for what the Falcons gave away to get him. No rookie is.
2. Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota: The optimists will say that Ponder fell into a great situation. He has Adrian Peterson in the backfield, talented wide receivers (Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin), a productive tight end (Visanthe Shiancoe) and a strong defense.
The problem is that nobody saw Ponder as a player worthy of being the 12th overall selection in this year's draft, and the Vikings don't exactly have a strong veteran quarterback who can help him get acclimated to the position. The best-case scenario for Ponder is a lockout that lasts deep into the summer. That way the Vikings might not have any option but to sit him for a year and let him develop at a slower pace.
3. Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Kansas City: It's not surprising that the Chiefs took a wide receiver with their first-round pick, especially given the lack of talent to complement Pro Bowler Dwayne Bowe. The eye-opening part is that Baldwin was their man. At 6-foot-5 and nearly 230 pounds, he has speed, good hands and exceptional leaping ability.
What he also has are a few documented comments in college that suggest he could be the latest diva receiver to enter the league. The upside here is that Chiefs head coach Todd Haley knows a thing or two about developing receivers with oversized egos (like Bowe). The question is whether Baldwin is the kind of player who can handle Haley's hard-line tactics and still blossom to his fullest potential in the end.
4. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jacksonville: This isn't a knock on Gabbert's skills, since he was widely considered the safest quarterback prospect in this class. It is a shot at the Jaguars and their ability to develop quarterbacks during the Jack Del Rio era. Byron Leftwich didn't work out. David Garrard isn't the answer he seemed to be a few years ago.
Now we're supposed to believe that Gabbert has a chance to grow into a strong player in that regime? It's great for him if it happens, but don't be surprised if things go south while Del Rio remains on the job.
5. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina: Newton could end up in the best marriages category if Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula know how to handle his prodigious ability. What is hard to predict is whether they really can do exactly that. If Newton had landed in a place like Buffalo, it would've been easy to envision an open-minded offensive coach like Chan Gailey using him in creative ways that allowed him to gain immediate confidence and play to his strengths.
The Panthers' coaches have to prove they can be just as patient and progressive in how they prepare him. For all of the hype surrounding Newton, this isn't a guy who is going to walk into the league and play at the level of Sam Bradford or Matt Ryan. He's going to need a lot of help, and we'll see if Carolina can give it to him.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
2011 NFL DRAFT
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